the Rolling hills of Leitrim to the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts...
On the morning of her departure, my grandmother, Mary Anne
McManus Owens ("Molly" to friends and "Nana"
to us) woke to the sound of her mother hanging the kettle
in the kitchens enormous fireplace.
The eldest of 10 children, she had the privilege of sleeping
alone in the narrow pine bed, while her siblings slept three
or four to a bed. As she carefully tucked in the sheet corners,
she realised she was making her bed for the last time -
Paddy, the next eldest, would inherit it that night.
She folded her thick, woollen blanket and placed it in a
small, red chest while thinking about her uncle in America
- a man she's never met, but one who had sent her money
to purchase a one-way ticket to America and a new wardrobe
for the journey. Then, slowly, she changed into one of her
new dresses, luxuriating in the fabric as it slid over her
When she stepped into the kitchen, she marvelled at the
feast her mother had spread out on the pine kitchen table
and the drop-leaf table used for special occasions: breads,
jams, bacon, eggs, pots of tea, jugs of milk, and plates
of sweets. Looking at the tables, she reflected back upon
the thousands of meals she'd shared with her family.
Scanning the room, she thought of how her 18 years of life
in the same three room cottage - home since the day of her
birth in 1903 - was drawing to a close. Although she tried
to imagine her destination, New York, she couldn't conjure
up any real images.
Standing there on her final day in East Barrs, Glenfarne
she certainly never imagined that 82 years later, long after
her own death, a yet-to-be born grandson would return to
Ireland, rescue the tables, small chest, and pine bed from
the elements and have them restored. The fact that he would
have the furniture crated, loaded onto a plane, and flown
across the Atlantic in just one day would have seemed more
fanciful than any fairytale she'd ever heard.
That day, she often said, a dizzying mixture of anticipation
and anxiety swirled through her head as the minutes ticked
away. Images of Leitrim's rolling hills and glistening lakes
would eventually fade, she feared. But the thought of familiar
faces vanishing into darkness and familiar voices muting
into silence seemed unbearable.
She wanted to share a few more moments with her mother,
so she helped clean up thinking, with tears in her eyes,
that they might never see each other again. Her younger
sisters Catherine, Maggie, Beatrice, and Sarah washed and
dried and my grandmother lovingly replaced each piece in
its place of honour on the Irish dresser. Then she sat on
the settle bed to the right of the door with a cup of tea
and talked to friends and family members who filtered in
and out of the house to say goodbye.
My grandmother lost herself in conversation until her father
gently reminded her that the moment had arrived. With a
deep breath, she rose, crossed the room, and entered her
parents' small bedroom where her travel clothes - the most
beautiful she'd ever seen, were laid out on the bed. After
changing for the second time that morning, she adjusted
her new hat in the family's only mirror, angled in a place
of honour on her mother's chest of drawers.
When she stepped back into the kitchen, she opened her purse
one last time; ticket, passport, pound notes, and shiny
coins bearing the likeness of Irelands sovereign, King George
V, were all in order. After a final sweeping look around
the kitchen, she followed a crowd of well-wishers out the
small, red door of the cottage, which everyone called "Frank
Denis," to differentiate it from the "Francis
Felix" McManus family next door.
Her fingers trailed across the red and white fuchsia blossoms
bordering the narrow drive before Paddy helped her onto
the donkey trap. Her mother, holding baby Rose Frances,
settled in on the other side and her brother Denis passed
the suitcase of neatly packed clothes to his father, who
took the reigns.
My grandmother looked back at the little cottage as the
donkey started with a jolt. The entire McManus clan - along
with a troupe of friends and distant relatives - followed;
laughing and joking as they plodded down the hill. My grandmother's
heart beat faster with every bump. She scanned the countryside,
burning details into her memory - the little cottages and
barns, the trees she'd passed thousands of times, the cows
and sheep in the fields, the old Stone Man holding vigil
way up on the mountain, and the bushes where she picked
blackberries to make jam.
Older neighbours stood in their front doorways or beside
the road, waving at the small convoy as smoke from peat
fires wafted out of their chimneys. They all knew Mary Anne
was off to America. Their emotions were mixed: happiness
at the thought of a better life that awaited her overseas
and sadness at the thought of a of all those who had preceded
her on the journey from East Barrs to America - never to
Her father manoeuvred the cart alongside the "Big Bog"
railway stop at Michael Hugh Clancy's, before helping her
down. Then, after she hugged everyone goodbye - clasping
onto her mother until the last possible minute - Mary Anne
McManus boarded the train she'd so often seen but never
set foot upon.
She leaned out the window memorising faces as smoke puffed
out of the steam engine. She shouted her last goodbyes as
the wheels started to turn. She waved until her arm ached
as the train chugged faster and faster, and she wiped away
the tears streaming down her cheeks as those she left behind
faded into smaller and smaller dots that eventually disappeared
like the last speckle of sun at dusk.
Later that day she boarded the R.M.S. Baltic for the eight
day journey to New York, where she was welcomed by cousins
who nursed her through the tonsillectomy she underwent almost
immediately after clearing immigration. Then, she went to
work. Like many of her countrymen and women, work for my
grandmother meant domestic service in pre-Depression New
York - an era that marked the true end of robber baron extravagance,
partially manifested in an upper crust that maintained multiple
houses with 10, 50, or even 100 servants.
Decades later, when my sister, Christine, and I sat around
our grandmother's table in Great Barrington, Massachusetts
drinking tea, she often reminisced about those days. Seeing
the lights of New York for the first time, she said, made
her feel like she'd arrived in Heaven itself. Sinking into
the luxurious, red velvet seat of a movie theatre as the
lights went down, the curtains came up, and Charlie Chaplin
danced across the screen made her feel like she was living
in a fairytale.
She often drifted back into that world as she sat in the
chaise-lounge on her glass-enclosed porch, gazing out at
the three tall trees my grandfather had planted in a row;
one for each of their children. New York of the 1920s remained
a dream in her mind - a paradise inhabited by families with
names like Vanderbilt and Whitney who lived in 20th Century
palaces and provided people like my grandmother with comfortable,
A paradise in which she bought the beautiful clothes she
treasured as only someone who grew up with two dresses -
one for school and Sundays and another for work - could.
A paradise in which cooks in the houses of "rich people"
conjured up whatever struck her fancy and gave her ice cream
in hot summer days; luxuries beyond the imagination of a
child reared on bread, vegetables grown on the farm, and
meat once or twice a week. And, perhaps most vividly for
her, a paradise filled with friends, laughter, and dances.
Although she realised the small luxuries of her life in
New York, frugality was ingrained in my grandmother's core.
From a monthly salary of $80 (in addition to room and board),
she sent her mother $5, paid all her expenses, repaid the
money advanced by her uncle, and saved as much as possible.
Ultimately, the money she saved afforded her what was probably
to her the greatest extravagance of her life. A woman whom
I had never known to take a vacation - apart from a few
days in Saratoga, New York for her honeymoon - determined
not to be an immigrant who never returned home. In 1925,
after four years in America during which her father had
died and Ireland had finally shaken the yoke of British
colonialism, she boarded the R.M.S. Adriatic and sailed
back across the Atlantic to the land of her birth.
Those days on the boats and the six months she spent in
Ireland were, she said, among the happiest of her life.
To those she'd left behind, Mary Anne McManus must have
seemed like Cinderella returning from the magic castle across
the sea; a fairytale princess in beautiful clothes, hats,
and high-heeled shoes. At the time, many people thought
that money grew on trees in America, she explained. I now
have a better understanding of why; this type of radical
transformation in such a short period must have seemed miraculous.
I like to imagine her at 22, returning triumphantly up the
hill with her head held high - her steamer trunk overflowing
with gifts strapped to the back of a truck for hire. In
four short years, she had succeeded beyond all of her adolescent
My grandmother frequently reflected back upon that trip
home - the parties and dances, card games and family visits,
trips to neighbours' houses and afternoon teas around the
special drop-leaf table. I think my grandmother had many
happy memories of her trip back across the ocean and up
the hills to East Barrs.
Sometimes, she also reflected back upon the day when those
six months ended, her skyblue eyes misting over as she recalled
crying when she left her mother - knowing it was almost
certainly for the last time - and glancing back over her
shoulder at the small cottage as the truck carried her back
down the hill.
My grandmother lived another 65 years, but she never returned
to Ireland. She never again walked through the front door
of the family's cottage; she never again heard her mothers
voice; and she never again saw six of her siblings who either
stayed in Ireland or immigrated to England.
Back in New York, she accepted a position as a chambermaid
at the Gotham Hotel. If you visit Manhattan, you can still
see it - remodelled and rechristened the Peninsula in the
1990s - standing majestically at the corner of Fifth Avenue
and 55th Street.
Mr. Wetherbee, the hotel owner, summered in the Berkshire
town of Great Barrington and wintered in Florida. Stoneyhurst,
his thirty-two room house, was one of approximately 100
mansions in the Berkshire - the American aristocracy's equivalent
of England's Lake District. Mr Wetherbee asked my grandmother
to join his summer staff at Stoneyhurst, which she did for
five years. But she always, returned to her beloved New
York when the summer season ended. John Joseph Owens, my
grandfather, was one of scores of local men who worked part
time on the estate - raking the long drive of crushed, white
marble and tending the 65 acres of fields, gardens, and
green lawns that stretched into the horizon.
Hesitant to give up the life she loved in New York, she
initially rejected my grandfather's proposals of marriage.
He was, however, a persistent man. They married in Great
Barrington in 1931, when my grandmother was 28 - practically
an old maid by the standards of her times.
They received $100 from Mr Wetherbee and a three-acre plot
down the road from Stoneyhurst from my grandfather's parents.
On that land, the newly married couple built a three bedroom,
one bathroom house, with a formal dining room, two enclosed
porches, and shining new furniture. It would be their home
for the rest of their lives and my home for a major part
of my childhood.
Although my grandmother lived the rest of her life in this
small Massachusetts town, far from her native land, the
passing years never dampened her happy memories of home
- memories that could only be related in words, for there
were no pictures to guide us through the labyrinth of her
early life. Her history always felt like a radio program
to me; vivid descriptions sometimes relayed with sound effects,
but void of images.
Like many Irish, she was a wonderful storyteller, more than
compensating for a lack of pictures by interweaving her
tales with fact and fiction. Her little green leprechauns
hid pots of gold high up on the mountain, and in the bog,
past the Stone Man, where the families cut turf. Fairies
danced across the fields with flickering lights, and turkey
cocks screeched before someone died or jumped in front of
donkey carts at night to "scare people half to death."
The magical world was juxtaposed against a world of icicles
dangling from the tea kettle when the fire died out on the
long winter nights, children trudging through fields of
snow to get to school, and strenuous chores throughout the
year. I couldn't form a clear image of either world and
often asked my grandmother questions to fill in the gaps.
I distinctly remember sitting in front of presents cascading
into the living room from the Christmas tree in her house
one year and asking what she'd received for Christmas as
a child. "An orange," she replied. I didn't believe
her at the time.
Religion was another important element of her stories: attending
Mass every Sunday, making the sign of the Cross whenever
passing in front of the church, saying the Rosary on her
knees with her family each night. When she was overcome
by a fit of the giggles during her prayers, she informed
us, she'd soon feel her father's "switch" against
the back of her legs.
She also described a religion steeped in superstition: People
who sewed a button on a Sunday had the same button sewn
onto their nose when they died. Others who transgressed
in ways I no longer remember grew horns on their heads when
they passed away.
Her "Irishness" stayed with her in innumerable
other ways as well. Tea remained her drink of choice. My
most indelible imagine of my grandmother is of her sitting
at her kitchen table, rocking side to side (a habit she
developed over a lifetime of caring for children) drinking
a cup of tea. As a child, I drank so much tea that I never
developed a taste for coffee and still don't drink it to
Nearly seven decades of life in the United States never
dulled the soothing lilt of her brouge either. Idioms like
"God rest his [or her] soul," whispered every
time she mentioned a deceased person, peppered her speech
to the end.
Other idioms, I've never heard before or since, such as
"he bit-to" (meaning "he must have")
and "amn't I" (meaning "aren't I") also
added colour to her speech. Above all, I remember her always
launching into her tales with the words "back home
in Ireland;" never just "back home" or never
just "in Ireland."
These stories sparked my desire to see that mysterious world
of her youth. In 1985, at the age of 20 - two years older
she'd been when she first left Ireland - I flew to London
on the first leg of my journey to study for a year in Nice,
After a short stay with friends in England, I caught a ferry
from Holyhead to Dublin. I approached the journey one step
at a time, never really knowing how I'd get from one place
to the next. From Dublin, I took the train to Sligo, and
in Sligo I hopped in a bus bound for Manorhamilton.
My heart beat accelerated as the bus brought me closer to
a living piece of my history. Once I arrived in the small
town, I found a bed and breakfast, left my backpack, and
set out on foot to find East Barrs , about five miles from
town. I stopped at multiple houses along the way to ask
for directions and was invited in for tea each time.
One house belonged to one of my Great-Aunt Rose Frances's
former classmates. Another belonged to the Egans; Sally
Egan (nee O'Hara) had been raised in a house across the
road from my grandmother's family farm. She explained that
her family had modernised the homestead and that her sister,
Mary Bridget O'Shea, was staying there during her visit
from her home in England. Sally called Mary Bridget, who
remembered my grandmother and immediately invited me to
stay for a few days.
The sky was grey and it drizzled as I turned left off the
main road at Cornacloy and continued up the hill, past St
Michael's Church, rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original
in which my grandmother had worshiped. I walked past the
new school house, where little children rushed to the window
to wave at the stranger in a bright-blue jacket, and past
an old man with a cap, scything his field in just the same
way it was done when my grandmother was a child.
When I crested another hill, I saw an old woman with thick
glasses leaning on her cane in the middle of the road. At
the same time, rays of sunshine penetrated the thick layer
of clouds, striking the mountain, which burst into patched
of brilliant green.
"I thought you were me grandson Michael come home from
college," she said as I approached.
"No, I'm James Owens, from America. Do you happen to
know where the McManus house is?" I asked.
"Which McManus house would you be looking for?"
"Paddy McManus," I said. "He's my great-uncle.
My grandmother, Molly, left Ireland in 1921."
She paused for a moment and looked me straight in the eyes
before replying, "Shoo if it isn't Mary Anne's grandson
come home to Ireland."
No stranger before or ever since has ever uttered words
that have touched me as much as those. I travelled to Ireland,
two generations and 64 years after my grandmother had left;
yet Mrs Sadie McManus welcomed me back like a long-lost
As we walked back to her house, Mrs McManus pointed down
across the fields to a small, grey stone cottage capped
with a metal roof. It was, she explained, where my grandmother
had grown up and where my great-Uncle Paddy still lived.
Her family's modern, two story house next door had once
been its twin - two cottages build side by side by McManus
brothers, she said, perhaps hundreds of years ago - no one
knew for sure.
Sadie's son Francis McManus and his wife Theresa were surprised
to find me on their doorstep (since they had no idea that
I existed, let alone that I was walking up the hill from
Yet, they and their family also welcomed me with the legendary
Irish hospitality I'd heard so much about in America. The
tea kettle was immediately put on the stove and biscuits
appeared out of a tin.
Later that day I met Paddy. Although he was bowed slightly
with age and arthritis, his mind was as sharp as ever. People
on the hill and in town called him "The Yank,"
he explained, because he'd lived in America for many years
before returning to Ireland when my father was 14. He remembered
my father and his siblings fondly and asked me many questions
about them as he eased himself into a seat in the kitchen.
Francis later walked me around the perimeter of my family's
farm. Holding that dirt in my hand for the first time, moulding
it into a ball, I thought back to my great-grandparents,
whose faces I'd never seen.
As my borrowed Wellingtons sank into the ground- up to my
shins at times - I had trouble imagining how my great-grandparent
could have fed a family of 12 with such poor quality soil.
However, I learned that, as land owners, they were luckier
than many and actually had, by the standards of local families
at the time, a relatively comfortable life.
Aside from meeting the people in Leitrim, I was most struck
by the dramatic views. My grandmother had never had much
time for leisure as a child, let alone literature and poetry.
I don't even know if she ever realised that Yeats hailed
from this region. Walking up to the Stone Man on top of
the mountain, looking over the sweeping valleys and undulating
hills as the wind whipped around me, I understood how Ireland
had inspired me, I understood how Ireland had inspired Yeats
and many other brilliant writers.
I learned a great deal about my family history on that trip
and my ties to Ireland were further cemented that year when
I became an Irish citizen - a privilege accorded to me by
virtue of my grandmother's birth in Leitrim.
When I returned to America, I showed my grandmother the
pictures of Paddy and the farm. We talked about her memories
and the people who still remembered her. I think she was
happy to learn that she was still remembered, but, at the
same time, I think seeing those pictures was a bittersweet
moment for her.
As my great-uncles aged, the little cottage inevitably aged
with them until the whitewashed, thatched home at the end
of a path lined with fuchsia bushes was transformed into
a dull, grey cottage with a metal roof in the middle of
an overgrown field.
My trip also seemed to spark an interest in family history
in some of my other relatives. My father's sister and her
husband were next to visit the old homestead. I returned
with my father and step-mother Charlotte in 1989 while I
was living in London. I'll never forget how Paddy's face
lit up when he saw my father after more than 40 years.
As my father and his uncle huddled together, delving into
shared memories - separated only by a wisp of smoke from
Paddy's cigarette - I was struck by their uncanny resemblance
- almost as if my father was looking at a mirror image of
himself 40 or 50 years into the future.
Paddy died six months later. Theresa and Francis tell me
that those family visits were the highlight of his later
years and that he talked about us until the end. My grandmother
survived him by another six months, having lived by herself
until the age of 87, when a massive stroke debilitated her
shortly before her death.
Over the years all of my grandmother's children and four
of her six grandchildren have visited the little farm in
East Barrs. When my father and Charolette invited me to
join them on a trip back to Ireland in October 2003, I was
eager to return.
From photos my sister had taken the previous year, I knew
the house - which had been uninhabited for more than a decade
- still stood. But, the photos clearly showed that it was
slowly, inevitable succumbing to the elements - its stone
walls bowing further and further out as moisture seeped
Before Ieaving, I called Rose Francis in New York. As the
only surviving McManus sibling, she had ultimately inherited
the farm, and I asked her permission to save anything that
was salvageable. Frugality is also part of her core and
she encouraged me to be careful with my money, but told
me that I should take anything that could be saved.
After a quick stop in Dublin for a private tour of Leinster
House at the invitation of Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny,
whom my wife and I had met at a restaurant in Paris the
previous year, Dad, Charlotte, and I drove to Leitrim. We
had decided to spend most of the 10-day vacation visiting
the lakes, waterfalls, megalithic sites, and castles of
Leitrim, and we discovered a region of remarkable beauty.
When we arrived at the house in East Barrs, I found the
furniture in a worse state than I'd imagined. The Irish
dresser and settle bed I'd intended on saving were too far
gone - in fact, when I sat on the settle bed the side fell
off. Moisture seeping up through the floor and woodworm
- the notorious enemies of soft Irish pine - had taken a
severe toll, but I tried not to despair and set out to find
a furniture restorer. In an ironic twist of fate, I was
ultimately referred to Mark Wirtz, an expatriated American
living in Sligo.
Mark drove up the hill in his sports utility vehicle, pulling
a horse trailer borrowed from friends. After an initial
inspection, he discouraged me from saving the furniture,
explaning that the cost far outweighed the value. However,
even in the land of Yankee sentimentality, I lean slightly
toward genealogical zealotry and I was determined to save
whatever I could.
After closer inspection, Mark told me that the kitchen table
- which stood on a dryer corner of the flagstones in the
kitchen - could be saved if he replaced two of the feet.
Furniture in the large bedroom - where one of my great-uncles
had covered the floor with a sheet of linoleum - had fared
The small chest in which my grandmother had kept her woollen
blanket and the drop-leaf table that was only used on special
occasions could be restored without replacing any parts.
One leg of the small, roughly-hewn pine bed had poked through
the linoleum and sunk in to the mud below. Mark advised
me to leave it because it would require extensive repair,
but I told him to take it anyway.
The small mirror from my great-grandmother's dresser lay
on it's side - woodworm tracks snaked through its frame
and the mirror's silver backing had mostly flaked away.
After Mark had treated it for woodworm, I decided to take
it back in my suitcase. In the barn, I also found a rusted,
cast-iron oven which had been used to bake bread. I packed
it into my suitcase as well.
I owe MArk an enormous debt of gratitude. He painstakingly
refinished the furniture, replacing rotten feet with finely
crafted, pegged substitutes. Then, when I couldn't find
anyone to pack and box the pieces, he did that as well.
After I returned to America, it took me more than a month
and scores of telephone calls to find a company that would
ship the furniture from Sligo at something less than a stratospheric
price. At the end of the day, flying the furniture to America
by DHL, airfreight proved to be the most cost effective
When it was all totalled the furniture restoration project
cost enough money to buy an antique Georgian table or a
not-so-new used car. Why did I go through all this trouble
and expense? Perhaps it is because you can buy an antique
table and you can buy a used car, but you cannot buy family
history. Each scratch and nick on those pieces of furniture
tell the story of the family that lived and died and laughed
and cried around them.
My grandmother would have been 102 years old this year.
Her little blanket chest now sits at the foot of my sister's
bed in Lee, Massachusetts, the drop-leaf table has a place
of honour in my father's living room, the cast iron oven
sits on my hearth in Santa Monica, California, and, finally
the kitchen table at which my grandmother and her family
shared their meals, sits safe, dry, and covered in my father's
cellar awaiting its new life.
In January of 2005, shortly before I finished this article,
my wife, Sabine, and I celebrated the birth of our son,
Alexander James. I like to imagine him sitting in at that
kitchen table one day, eating cookies and drinking milk.
I'll watch him trace his fingers along the woodworms' intricate
paths as he asks me where they came from.
Then, I'll tell him that breakfast, lunch, and dinner were
served on that very same kitchen table to 10 small children,
including his great-grandmother, in a small, white cottage
with a red door and a thatched roof overlooking a valley
of emerald green fields and crystal clear lakes.
I'll also tell him that the little table left its corner
of the cottage and travelled back down the hill in a horse
trailer attached to a Japanese SUV driven by an expatriated
American furniture restorer living in Sligo.
Finally, I'll tell him that the little kitchen table boarded
a German plane and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to continue
the legacy of the McManus family of East Barrs in the United
Postscript: Mary Anne McManus was the only one of her siblings
to marry. Her family still retains ownership of the farm
in East Barrs.
James J. Owens is a writer and an Assistant Professor of
Clinical Management Communication at the University of Southern
California Marshall School of Business. He lives in Santa
Monica, California with his wife, Sabine, their son, Alexandra
James, and their two dogs. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Courtesy of James J. Owens and The Leitrim Observer